Personally, I can't improve on Beverly Creasey's review of "Almost, Maine" --- however, on press-night I saw the show with an audience decidedly cooler than either of us. I mean, the usual audience for a comedy warms rather early to the action, the wit, or the absurdities. A well-organized audience for a well-oiled comedy can deliver a gradual creschendo of laughs that culminate in enthusiastic applause at the ends of scenes ... at the ends of each of the eight short scenes that this show presents. And I was prepared to join in both the laughter and the applause, as apparently was Bev on a different night.
But when I was there, it never came, till the end of the evening. The audience sounded as though it had been "appreciating" the comedy all along --- but more or less silently. It felt like that old stand-up-comedy quip "You were So Funny I could hardly keep from Smiling!" Well, comics are, after all, well-noted as being so professional they Never laugh at each other's material, though they often cool-ly and objectively compliment it. But when a whole Press-Night Audience does the appreciation-bit, it feels real odd.
I found it particularly odd because press-night usually brings out what I think of as the usual suspects: "The Professional Audience" --- first of all the critics, all wearing their "Oh, I've really seen all this before,haven't I" glacially non-committal frowns of "critical distance" --- but a house leavened with a healthy lacing of experienced actors (sometimes referred to as "the paper"), who know Funny when they see it and who are professionally committed to making the proper response when they do. What made them hold back so long, I wonder. (I even wonder if this cool reception might might have worked subcutaneously on me, making me hesitate in announcing my glee if, perhaps, I was missing something. Is A Puzzlement!)
Then, not long after, I had a chance to observe two different sorts of AMATEUR Audiences at work. The first was at a performance of "Marvin's Room" in the basement of the Arlington Street Church, done by a group new to me called SPORADIC EVOLUTION: A Theatre Company, directed by their founding Producing Artistic Director Don Sheehan. This was a shoestring-production whose monetary poverty forced some intriguing cheap solutions to things like sets and curtains and scene-shifts; it also put heavy emphasis on the acting, and this oddly exaggerated what suddenly seemed to me glaring inconsistencies in the script.
I mean, the play starts with a main character getting an exam from a doctor who seems about as competent to diagnose anyone as, say, Harpo Marx. Fine, funny stuff, and Sheehan played him as full-out comedy, and so far so good --- except that the patient soon discovers she is really dying of leukemia. That's a hard transition for any play to hurdle, if both scenes are played to the hilt! Add the complication that the only relatives that might be viable matches for a bone-marrow transplant are a sister/nephew team sunk into cruel satirical sniping, picking off each other's worst memories --- and, again, played to the vicious hilt, no holds barred. Now we have three plays warring for supremacy on a barely empty stage.
I can only guess that Sheehan guessed somewhat correctly about how to handle his audience. Most of them were high-school girls, self-conscious friends bussed in, and leaving early because of parental curfews. Before the show their main concerns were who sits with whom, and where the boys were. During what they saw it was mainly whether their friends were "getting" the quips. And since they decamped in a body halfway through act two, I have no idea what they could have thought of the experience.
What I thought was that, given the exaggerated comic/tragic emphasis, the cast got creditable if mismatched performances out of their three different plays --- and even upon occasion played to one another effectively when allowed dialogues. And it left me wondering whether a more "professional" audience would have loved or hated it --- or whether such an audience might have forced all those extremes toward some sort of more common mid-ground.
The third audience was for "Sheer Madness."
I had seen the show once before, but that was half a decade ago when Boston's answer to "The Mousetrap had been playing for only two centuries (or was it three? It's so easy to loose track... ) in the basement of The Charles Playhouse. Ellen Coulton invited me to see it before her stint as Mrs. Shubert ended, and I marvelled at both how much was familiar to me yet how much a couple of new performers and a load of topical quips could make an old chestnut crackle. And, of course, I could pay more attention this time on the audience than on the play.
I think in every audience there there are always a sprinkling of old pro enthusiasts bringing out-of-town visitors to this Boston institution --- and egging them on to enjoy the over-the-top performances, and insisting they pay close attention to the details that play eventually into the solution of the murder. (Yes! Someone --- off-stage --- gets murdered in this play, Every Night!) There are some good quips and audience-put-downs that have crept into the script and never left, and everyone in even the newest cast knows exactly when and how to knock the laugh-lines and takes right out of the park. Every syllable of the show is the result of twenty years (at least) of hands-on refinement, and even the breaks in character are thoroughly rehearsed.
But what got me was the way that "Oh, you Gotta See SHEER MADNESS!" crowd played Their part in the show to well-honed perfection. The questions and speculations about who was where and when and what they might be doing or thinking came out of new mouths, the audience-poll fingered someone I did Not see arrested the previous time, and even though the bar-maid knew the name but not the recipe for my overly expensive manhattan, I had a ball. And the laughs from me --- which Everyone in the cast said they'd heard --- were, I assure you, genuine.
I was a mere member of the audience!
( a k a larry stark ) ===Anon.